Kaja Kallas: Debate cannot be allowed to turn ugly, or people to get hurt

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Toomas Sildam's interview with Kaja Kallas. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

What to discuss with the prime minister on the eve of Victory Day and Midsummer Day? Journalist Toomas Sildam grilled Kaja Kallas on Budget cuts, coronavirus, the armed forces band, conflicts in politics, why she is reading the book "The Asshole Survival Guide: How to Deal with People Who Treat You Like Dirt" and whether there is a thread holding all 1.3 million people in Estonia together.

I'm sure that by now, five months after Reform and Center formed the government, you can tell me whether serving as PM is the toughest job in Estonia in having to run the largest organization in the country – the Republic of Estonia.

Yes, it is not the easiest of jobs. Then again, I was never under the impression that it would be, considering we had an unprecedented start in the history of Estonian governments – taking over in the middle of a major crisis.

That said, I'm sure you did not imagine hobby education cuts and the closing of police and armed forces bands would be the keywords to mark your first half-year, instead of the coronavirus?

It is very well that the coronavirus is not the main topic six months on. It shows that we have recovered from Covid, at least for a spell.

It would be much better for you if people talked about the government's success in tackling the coronavirus.

The fact we have been given a breather from the virus… Why did we write the white book of living with the virus? Why is the cabinet analyzing all the lessons we learned from the second wave and discussing preparations for the fall? Why are we doing these things? So as to be prepared and not negatively surprised should the virus hit again, as well as to be positively surprised should it not come to pass.

Will there be a third wave?

That will depend on the new strains. Vaccines are effective against the latter for the time being, which is good news and suggests the third wave will perhaps not hit as hard. However, as we have seen in the course of the crisis, the virus is very dynamic and it is better to be safe than sorry. Therefore, it is better to prepare and be positively surprised when the third wave doesn't hit than the opposite.

The Bank of Estonia forecasts economic growth at 8.2 percent for this year in its optimistic scenario. Our state budget totals €13 billion, while you are taking a beating defending €60 million worth of cuts. Why on Earth?

The logic of fiscal policy prescribes countercyclic investments. The state should dial things back when the economy is growing and stimulate when it is not.

Solid first quarter financials are no doubt encouraging. The supplementary budget we put together in eight days was expertly aimed at fields that were hit hardest – €645 million in loans and support to help these sectors…

And now it's the turn of hobby education and brass bands?

It is not. (Sighs)

I have addressed this issue on several occasions, while I can do it again. Government sector expenses have grown by 47 percent in the last five years. Of course, crises bring unforeseen expenses. They also necessitate taking additional loans to overcome the crisis.

The only thing we want to achieve is returning to the pre-crisis level. Allowing costs to run away from us simply isn't sustainable.

Greece did it 15 years ago when it was twice as wealthy as we were. They are 20 percent poorer than we are today, which directly manifests in people's prosperity.

Of course, if I wanted to be popular, and who doesn't want to be popular, I would have to say that showering everyone in money will continue. However, would that be what's right for Estonia, right for the people also in the long run?

As concerns hobby education funding, the latter is a local government task, and local governments invest over €100 million a year in hobby education. State support amounted to €14 million and will now be €7.25 million. However, support for local governments will grow next year, the share of local government revenue in the state budget is set to go up. It will be up to local governments to decide how to use the money, and if supporting hobby education is important – which I believe it is – then that is what they can do.

[Local paper] Raplamaa Sõnumid had this summary: "The Reform Party is going down the traditional path of alienating itself from the people." This is also reflected in the polls where support for your party is lowest it's been since 2019. Not an encouraging situation.

It is not. However… we have two choices: whether to be honest or not.

What we saw in the state budget strategy, as confirmed by the Bank of Estonia and the Fiscal Council, and indeed the previous finance minister – it was bluff. It included a billion euros of empty air.

People built all manner of castles in the sky based on it and are not willing to give up on them, which is why things that have been around for a long time and should be retained are targeted. We are merely talking about returning to the pre-crisis level. The bands and everything else were just fine then and no cutbacks were needed.

Do you know who said that, "The Reform Party is back to its old tune of spreadsheets and fiscal balance."?

(Snorts) Yes, I know who said that. They were also present when the state budget strategy was being put together, next to Kaja Kallas.

It was Jüri Ratas, chairman of the Center Party, your dear coalition partner, in his interview to Maaleht. Ratas is like a splinter in your finger and keeps pricking you.

(Laughs) Splinters… Yes…

Okay, I will not go there as I have a feeling I know where you would take it. It's simply that I'm constantly having to deal with splinters as I have a very course patio at my country house and walk barefoot. (Laughs)

It's not nice.

You get used to it.

It sometimes feels you make it a point to do things differently than was done during Ratas' day and become grumpy when Ratas is mentioned.

No, why? Prime ministers are always remembered fondly.

People also remember long-time PM Andrus Ansip and those who came before him. They did the best they could based on their understanding.

Kaja Kallas. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

You invited Jüri Ratas to join the government during your Reform Party general assembly speech. Did you mean now or after Riigikogu elections in 2023?

I meant now. The coalition party chairman often tries to position himself outside the administration, while this is unhealthy for Estonia's development, the government and the parties it is made up of, including Center.

Centrist ministers seem to be on the government's side.

Yes, we have willingness to work together, warm and supportive relations in the government. There are different topics and arguments, while we try to consider one another's interests, problems and political preferences.

Such cooperation is simpler with just two partners. We have made decisions that had been shelved for a long time, put together the supplementary budget in the conditions of the coronavirus crisis. We achieved around 90 percent of the government's 100 days plan…

Will the coalition last until elections?

Yes, I believe so. We definitely want to.

Helir-Valdor Seeder being reelected Isamaa leader rather came as good news for Center but not so much for the Reform Party, as it means Center remains your only potential partner in the current composition of the Riigikogu.

It is true that Seeder has never been keen to form a government with us. He definitely prefers one with the Conservative People's Party (EKRE) and has from the first.

However, it will be interesting to see what will become of Isamaa. It was not so much a choice between two people as two headings. How will they move on if one [side] believes they should go there (points to the left) and the other there (points to the right), while a single direction needs to be picked. It will be interesting to see.

Were you rooting for either of the two candidates?

A party's internal affairs are just that. There are sympathies between people in politics, while you need to work with the people members elect at the end of the day.

You said that we need to apply the brakes when it comes to state spending, while it should be done in a way to avoid the passengers banging their heads on the windshield. And yet, the opposite happened. How big of a surprise was it that the police and EDF bands became such a hot and divisive topic?

We did not think it would resonate on that scale. The band can continue. The commander of the Defense Forces [Lt. Gen. Martin Herem] has explained the main task of the armed forces. That the EDF band could operate under another unit (Estonian Military Museum – ed.) seemed like a solid proposal to me, and it was indeed a surprise that it met such backlash.

Do you believe the strength of the EDF is reflected only in how well they shoot or is that perhaps an overly tactical view and that society has the right to a broader, more strategic understanding of the armed forces' position in society for the 2 percent of GDP it contributes to national defense?

The strength of the Defense Forces is reflected in many things, starting with people's preparedness to defend their country. Secondly, military capacity that depends on how much we invest in the armed forces. And thirdly, allied presence and support that is just as important in terms of our ability to defend ourselves.

That is to say it goes well beyond how well one shoots and what kind of gun they use.

Conductor Martin Sildos recently wrote about the decision to move the EDF band under the war museum and quoted Headmaster Wikman from Jaan Kross' book "Wikmani poisid": "We, Estonians, number so few that every Estonian must strive for immortality! But not immortality through hooliganism but through creative cultural initiative." Isn't Herem's treatment of the EDF band hooliganism on a grand scale?

In my eyes, the matter has been resolved by today and we should not get bogged down in it. Is it the only place where Estonian culture is channeled or the task of the Defense Forces? The EDF commander's explanation that every organization has its own vision and tasks and that he is concentrating on his seemed reasonable.

The government appoints the commander of the Defense Forces. Could the government also phrase the values the commander must observe, and could they go beyond hardware, training and equipment? For a broader view of society?

A broader view of society is vital everywhere. But who is responsible for what at the end of the day? We have different roles in society and defensive capacity goes beyond equipment and military capabilities. It is true, while defensive capacity also grows out of broader resilience and levels of support in society.

Talking about national defense, it is incomprehensible why Estonia is questioning its continued presence in the NATO Strategic Communications Center of Excellence in Riga where we hold the position of deputy director.

No decision has been made. This matter can be addressed once that position becomes vacant [in the current rotation]. However, I do not agree that Estonia not participating in the future has been decided.

Would you rather agree that the government will find the necessary €125,000 the position costs annually and remain active in Riga?

All such decisions will be made inside the fiscal calendar, meaning that the next set of decisions will become visible in September.

Will Estonia have a representative at the NATO Stratcom COE in Riga next year?

Next, you will ask me for the name of that representative…

No. My question is perfectly simple, keeping in mind how keen Estonia was for allies to join the NATO Cyberdefense Center of Excellence in Tallinn and how it makes perfect sense for the Latvians to want to see their closest neighbors involved.

Yes, and the NATO stratcom center in Riga has done excellent work.

There has been a lot of talk at NATO, in addition to conventional warfare, about hybrid threats, information warfare and being prepared for it all, looking at the 2023 NATO strategy and the future.

Therefore?

Therefore, I believe we should be part of this undertaking, while final decisions can be made when… Of course, it is important from a strategic point of view.

Kaja Kallas. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

The government did fine with the coronavirus crisis, while spas and other companies are now suing the government over restrictions. What can you already say in your defense?

Shutting down society when we had just 26 infected persons during the first wave raised no eyebrows in terms of it being unfair or too onerous. Entrepreneurs are keeping their ears open for anyone who says we do not need particular restrictions anymore, especially coming from the Covid scientific advisory committee, and we end up with a bunch of lawsuits the next day.

This government has tried to maintain a balance between visible and invisible victims. I've always said that people like to feel sorry for victims they can see, coronavirus patients. However, the other side of the equation is made up of invisible victims – people who lose their job, are forced to close companies they've spent years building. We do not see them every day, while they are also victims.

Looking at the world, our restrictions have been very mild. Italy just announced it will stop requiring people to wear masks outdoors, while their infection rate is lower than ours. I ask them how they manage to maintain restrictions at Council meetings. How can you maintain the obligation to wear a mask outdoors in Portugal in the conditions of such a low infection rate?

People trust their state.

And don't trust the healthcare system. Our strong healthcare system is an advantage. One is unlikely to get medical attention upon falling ill in Portugal – at least that is the feedback I got.

The fact these figures have come down is the result of responsible behavior, most have observed restrictions. However, there is another side to this.

We were just discussing in the government that if we explain restrictions through the epidemiological situation, or switching to the next risk level when restrictions go up, it also needs to work the other way around. The risk level falling means we have no more reason to maintain restrictions as they are only necessary for stopping the spread of an infection disease.

EKRE are saying that you want a surveillance society, are creating super databases and discarding basic rights and freedoms.

It seems to me that EKRE are talking about what they would love to do themselves and perhaps were working on when still in the government. That is why they have it all figured out, ready to recite. (Snorts)

Helir-Valdor Seeder described the public letter to your Finnish colleague, urging Finland to allow Estonian commuters to cross the Gulf of Finland, as diplomatically uncouth. Perhaps it really was too much?

It was a very warm and empathic letter to urge the Finnish society to understand our problem.

My role as prime minister is to represent the people of Estonia. The problem [of commuters to Finland] has lingered for a long time, we have used all diplomatic means and the article was a warm and not at all accusatory appeal to the Finnish people to understand our plight.

The PM of Estonia sends a public letter to her Finnish counterpart that is published by major newspapers two days before local elections in Finland. It comes off as enthusiasm-driven foreign policy.

Whatever you might call it, things that bring results for the people of Estonia are fair game. We have good relations with Finland and the letter was rather received positively in Finland. If you think I have any serious effect on local elections in Finland, I'm sure you are overestimating my influence in the Finnish society.

Rather, it was to suggest Estonia has decided in favor of a very sharp course of action.

Sharp how? We have been dealing with the problem since January. Our epidemiological situation was much worse then and Finland's conduct was understandable for a time. But once epidemiological reasons were gone, it was possible to get tested on board our ferries back in March…

Working groups met to discuss a possible solution twice a month if memory serves. Our healthcare, internal affairs and foreign ministers stayed in touch, and yet, none of it yielded results. Finland also went against European Commission recommendations in terms of travel restrictions. It turned out during a Council meeting that the problem was with a single country and that the others were no longer using such travel restrictions because the epidemiological situation did not warrant it. Free movement of people is one of the core values of the EU and we will stand up in its defense.

In foreign policy, those who shout are ignored, while those who keep quiet go unnoticed. Ours was a balanced approach to achieve what the Estonian people need.

We were somewhere between the shouters and those who kept quiet?

We remained poised in the middle. We did not shout as we have pursued brilliant cooperation with Finland, while we cannot keep quiet and say it doesn't concern us when, in fact, it concerns many Estonian families.

You said in your general assembly speech that both state expenses and revenue need to be revised, that it is time to abandon dogmas and give Estonia a businesslike tax debate. Who will spearhead that debate?

The Reform Party will spearhead the debate and we are already working on it. It is not about a single tax for me, but rather what we tax and why.

Very good. You can pool your resources with Center as Jüri Ratas is also talking about the need for a tax debate.

It will be a good debate as we sport completely different views in terms of taxes.

Do you support Minister of Health and Labor Tanel Kiik's (Center) care insurance tax idea to cover welfare expenses that would be split between the employer and employee?

It is a perfect example of how not to hold a tax debate – taking a single tax and running with it. We should look at the entire system.

In a situation where you shouldn't tax the things you want to develop, where are our taxes highest? Working. That is to say labor taxes should be lower. Now, let us look at it from the state's point of view. Social tax yields major revenue that is very easy to collect. How to compensate if we want to say that the social tax rate should be much lower or abolished altogether? Will we tax other ways of making money, will we tax property or turnover differently…

Taxing real estate that is not one's home. How about it?

It is one part of a bigger picture. But again, we cannot see it separately.

If we want to have lower labor taxes, so that people could keep more of what they make and companies hire people without it being their biggest single expense…

Then we need to tax something else.

Then we need to tax something else, I agree. The question is what should that be and whether it can cover the hole left by social tax.

What about social tax on dividends in cases where it is the only income of the CEO?

Again, the big picture tells us that working has changed quite a bit in time. People do not work like they used to years ago. More people are doing intellectual work and realizing that what they do is like a service that could be offered through a limited company in order to optimize taxes.

We cannot hold this against them as the tax burden is considerable. We should try and tax income in a way that would be fair for everyone and punish neither those who work nor those who hire.

We want to create a competitive tax system to boost the economy enough to be able to avoid hiking taxes. Do we try to fix expenses for which we need revenue or boost income enough not to have to worry about costs?

Center Party chairman Jüri Ratas, who also prioritizes a tax debate, asked whether we want a thin and individualist state or one where solidarity and support from society can be felt. What does the Reform Party want?

The Reform Party wants the people of Estonia to live well in Estonia, for the Estonian language, culture and people to endure and for the economy to develop. The latter allows us to support those who really need help.

I absolutely agree that help should be available and directed at those who need it. We can have more of it when society as a whole is doing well. Including the economy.

You would also like that country to only have Estonian education from 2035?

Predominantly Estonian education. This does not mean schools that teach in other languages are impossible.

Estonia is so small that only around one million people speak the language worldwide, and we need to preserve that language, make efforts to that effect. Everyone in society realizes that a good education in Estonia is available at Estonian schools, which is why we have differences in employment etc. We need Estonian language proficiency to reach a level where it would not get in the way of anyone's working of studying.

Where will you find the necessary teachers in just 14 years?

We will start with an activity plan, including by introducing professional Estonian teachers to Russian kindergartens and from there basic schools… Finding these teachers and funds requires efforts. These decisions need to be made.

A newly created election coalition from Saku Municipality has proposed academician Tarmo Soomere for president. This comes off as the people taking the initiative away from passive parties, while the people's preferences might not manifest as those of parties that might lead to disappointment, which is what happened five years ago. Do you perceive such a danger?

It is positive that people are proposing various candidates. Firstly, it shows that we have a lot of suitable candidates, people who are intelligent and respected in society.

Everyone wants to see more debate. At the same time, our electoral system sees the Riigikogu or Electoral College elect the president, while the window for setting up candidates is very short.

How far have you, together with the Center Party, gotten in your search for a common presidential candidate who could be elected in the Riigikogu?

How far… There is nothing to report at this time.

There are quite a few people who we could support. But it is vital for our coalition partner to find the people they are willing to get behind.

The discussion is ongoing and will pick up speed after Midsummer Day.

Editor-in-chief of local paper Virumaa teataja Eva Samolberg-Palmi gave the Riigikogu the nickname of the "harassment assembly." Rather striking, don't you think?

It is sad. The Riigikogu is our legislative body and it should have [the public's] respect, because trust in the Riigikogu also mirrors trust in laws and regulations it lays down.

Samolberg-Palmi wrote that she has often wondered what PM Kaja Kallas feels going to work in the morning and whether she cries late at night after being bullied in the Riigikogu. You know how it is. Do you mind answering her?

These things always reveal more about the bully than the victim.

I have laid a foundation of positive people around me and such isolated bullies can do nothing to shake me.

Do personal insults in the Riigikogu a la "Tell me, flower, how did you end up here" and "She has a bipolar disorder" affect you or are you immune?

No one is able to completely ignore something like that if it lasts for six and a half hours during a no-confidence motion hearing. People have asked me why I don't respond in kind. In my reply, I have quoted Marcus Aurelius who said that the best revenge is not to become like they are. I definitely plan to maintain that line.

Kaja Kallas. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

Looking at party ratings, over a fifth of people in Estonia seem to applaud these insults or feel they are entirely warranted.

That is actually what worries me the most. Not that my established "admirers" behave in this manner in the Riigikogu but that a quarter or one-fifth of Estonians give them credit for it.

We could say there are four levels of debate. The lowest is attacking the person because you have nothing else to say. The one up from that is going after a person's style, claiming that their opinion is childish, while failing to elaborate. Then comes attacking your opponent's position and giving reasons, and finally, there is also proposing your own position and arguments to support it…

I believe the Riigikogu should operate on the top two levels. However, what I've rather seen is debate on the two lower levels. It is sad.

Are EKRE looking to ridicule the Riigikogu?

It seems to me that EKRE… Not the whole of EKRE, because the party and their supporters include a lot of nice people. But a small circle at the very top of the party is looking to divide Estonian society every way they can. They are always against something. They never support anything and are perhaps trying to demonstrate that people shouldn't have faith in state institutions.

Our eastern neighbor has behaved in the same exact manner and resorted to the same tricks to split societies. Why do these tools coincide? It is most definitely in the interests of Russia if Estonians start to doubt everything, including their institutions.

Why are EKRE feeding this on the level of the Riigikogu – that is what I do not understand.

This parallel is probably a conspiracy theory?

It is not a conspiracy theory insofar as… [U.S. historian] Timothy Snyder points out in his book "The Road to Unfreedom" how local extremists and the Kremlin use exactly the same tricks to undermine Western societies or faith in Europe.

That does not mean they are linked.

No. It does not imply a connection. But, for some reason, these methods coincide precisely. I do not think they are working with the Kremlin, but it is largely the same modus operandi.

The aim of their bawling is to demonstrate that they are the only ones suited to ruling.

And if this is something the voter rewards, we have serious problems. A situation where destruction is rewarded over construction is not sustainable.

They are still a minority. And we should not accept this narrative that they represent the people. Different parties represent the people. Isamaa, Center Party, Social Democrats and the Reform Party have always built on existing things.

But EKRE is something new. EKRE first and foremost wants to tear down.

Asked by Õhtuleht how you deal with insults by EKRE MPs, you said you were recently presented with Robert Sutton's book "The Asshole Survival Guide: How to Deal with People Who Treat You Like Dirt" that is full of recommendations. Could you share a few that can be used against bullies.

The book was shelved for a long time. It is a typical American self-help book. But I remembered it at one point along with all the good tips. Humor always helps one get past bullying.

We sometimes become blind to assholes when forced to work next to them for a period of time and start to regard the situation as normal, an introduction into the book reads. Political scientist Tõnis Saarts has written about populism becoming the new normality. Can this new normality be avoided?

Looking at what is happening with the state budget strategy (RES) debate, it seems honest politics is no longer rewarded. It is becoming increasingly difficult.

Can we reach an agreement or compromise with populists, especially radical populists?

When the government started, I said that one part of political culture is opening the door to good ideas also from the opposition and considering them as far as possible.

We immediately supported a bill by the Social Democrats on the availability of psychiatric care for minors. We also tried to take into account things and concerns EKRE pointed out during the Communicable Diseases Prevention and Control Act [NETS] deliberation.

I welcome debate and arguing over contents. And I am ready to listen to arguments. I'm not always right. No, I am glad to listen and the other side may just have the truth of it.

Is that to say it is possible to agree and compromise with radical populists?

We did agree on NETS that turned out to be much ado over adding a single word to the text as we understood the contents the same way.

But more generally speaking, bringing radical populists to the government was definitely a mistake, because – as demonstrated by Sutton's book – it normalizes things, makes you blind to changes and what they are doing to us.

Jüri Ratas and Helir-Valdor Seeder tried to have a government with EKRE but failed.

Yes, it did not produce the result they were expecting – that everything would change if they were included.

I would also say that despite all the commotion EKRE caused in the government, they achieved precious little. They failed to make a single decision to improve their voters' lives. It baffles me how people have failed to realize they have virtually nothing to show for their two years [in the government].

But because it seems to me EKRE supporters are largely protest voters and their heads are always against something, they are in their natural state in the opposition, meaning that support for them is going up.

Estonian writer Armin Kõomägi wrote in Laupäevaleht a few months ago: "We are all hanging by a thread like wild strawberries. Some are bigger and redder, others smaller and lighter in color, while yet others are rotten or worm-ridden. However, the thread that keeps us together is the most important thing." Is there such a thread keeping us all – 1.3 million people – together.

When Estonia won its independence, everyone had the same goal – to achieve independence, and society was fully united. It was the same situation when we regained our independence 30 years ago.

Since then, our views have drifted apart, for example, in terms of how society should be organized. The Social Democrats have one view, the Reform Party another, while Center sports its own vision… At the same time, the people say, listen, why are you arguing, remember how good we had it when everyone only had a single goal.

What I mean to say is that what unites us is the goal of maintaining the Estonian language, culture and people and for the economy to develop to facilitate all that. That is something we can all agree on.

Arguing over how to achieve that is a natural part of democracy we need to accept. However, the debate cannot be allowed to turn ugly. We can hold that debate in a cultured manner, so people do not get hurt.

Kaja Kallas. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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